Advice

Writing With a Heavy Teaching Load

Yes, you can ‘find time’ to write, but not without sacrifices

Victoria Nevland / Creative Commons

January 12, 2015

Rachel Toor’s November column, "The Habits of Highly Productive Writers," clearly resonated with Chronicle readers, as it was one of the most popular articles on the site for several weeks. It’s easy to see why: The essay contains practical information for academics seeking to boost their written output, and approaches the topic in a way that, for me, makes the whole endeavor seem a bit less daunting. I can imagine many readers came away from her column thinking, "I can do this."

And yet, I can also imagine that a lot of full-time faculty members at community colleges and other teaching-focused institutions found themselves also thinking, "That would be nice—if only I had the time to write."

I’d like to follow up Rachel’s excellent column with an encouraging word of my own, aimed specifically at faculty members who, like me, have a heavy teaching load: You can find time to write, if that’s what you really want to do. It won’t be easy, but there are ways to manage a heavy teaching (and service) load and still write and publish more than you’re doing now.

I usually teach five courses every semester. And since my discipline is writing, that means a lot of grading. I also advise students, serve on a couple of committees, (mostly) attend the required meetings, staff the department booth at campus open houses—all the same things done by most faculty members at teaching-focused colleges. In addition, I have a family and a moderately active social life.

Despite all that, this past fall semester (just as an example), I wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper, along with my monthly installments of The Two-Year Track for The Chronicle and periodic blog posts for Vitae. In addition I published several essays in other venues, finished the last three chapters of my third book (due out in 2015), and submitted a proposal for Book No. 4. I also learned to speak Mandarin Chinese, cut a jazz album, and built a life-size replica of the Millennium Falcon out of Legos.

OK, I made up those last three. But I did write well over 50,000 words this past semester. I don’t say that to brag. On the contrary, my message is that if I can do it, so can you. I am not, by nature, an exceptionally hard-working or organized person. Like a lot of you, I suspect, I’d much rather be curled up somewhere with a good book.

But I decided several years ago that I was going to write, and so I started writing—and kept at it. You can do the same, even with a heavy teaching load, by following a few simple pieces of advice:

Commit. The first step—as with most other worthwhile things in life—is to decide that you really want to write and that you’re willing to make certain sacrifices to achieve that goal. Because the key to writing, just like exercise or dieting, is to (with apologies to Nike) just do it.

I’ve lost count of the number of colleagues who have said they would like to write a book—"someday" when they "have more time." One thing we learn as we age, though, is that there’s never going to be some magical point in the future when we suddenly find ourselves with an overabundance of spare time. On the contrary, as I’ve gotten older, life has gotten more complicated, not less.

If you want to write, you might as well start now. It’s not going to get any easier. Ten years from now, you can either still be saying that you’d like to start writing someday or you can be counting your publications.

Organize and prioritize. The next step is to arrange your life so that you can make time for writing. I’m not talking about scheduling your writing time (we’ll get to that in a moment). Before you even reach that point, you have to make sure you’re not letting other important things fall through the cracks.

Obviously, that includes teaching and its attendant responsibilities, such as grading and course prep. You can’t afford to let those duties slide at a teaching-oriented college, or else you might find yourself with more writing time on your hands than you wanted.

At the same time, certain mundane, familiar tasks can take over your life if you let them. So don’t let them. In addition to classes, office hours, and meetings, which are already scheduled, you also need to set aside specific times for grading, class prep, and so forth. Then keep to that schedule as closely as possible.

That may require some sacrifices or changes in your priorities. Remember I said that I serve on a couple of committees? Well, I used to serve on four or five, but I’ve scaled back in order to free up more time for writing. Of course, that’s easier to do for someone like me, who already has tenure and a fair amount of seniority, than it might be for people early in their careers. But to find time to write, you will undoubtedly have to jettison some other activities, as you’re able. (Some new faculty members take on far too much anyway; learning to say no sometimes is advantageous.)

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This advice applies to your personal life, as well. If you’re like me, you don’t want to take any more time away from your family than necessary. But you may have to steal a few hours here and there if you want to write. Perhaps you can get up a little earlier in the morning. Maybe you can come home from the office a little later some days. Maybe you can find an hour or two on Saturday or Sunday morning while others in your household are still asleep. Again, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices, and family time and "me time" might be among them.

Schedule. There are two things in my life that I need to do but absolutely will not do unless I schedule them: exercise and writing.

Note that when I say "schedule," I mean that literally. I look at my calendar each week, with my classes, meetings, family commitments, etc., and block out segments of time when I’m going to write. (Just as I block out segments for exercise.) Three or four times a week, I try to set aside two-hour blocks of time to write. I know many experts say that you should write every day, and I don’t necessarily disagree. There are just some days when I don’t have any time to write—at all. But I’ve found that if I schedule blocks of time for writing, and hold them sacrosanct, I can generally use them productively.

That last sentence is key. Once you have looked at your calendar and scheduled time to write, that time must become inviolable, with the exception of family emergencies. (Your daughter forgetting her soccer cleats isn’t an emergency. She can wear her trainers or borrow a friend’s old pair for one day.)

As we all know, as soon as you sit down to write, it seems like dozens of things are suddenly competing for your attention, including Facebook and your cellphone. Those things can wait. For now, it’s time to write, so get to it.

If it helps, find a special place to write where you will face a minimum of distractions. I confess: I do a lot of my writing at McDonald’s. It has just the right ratio (for me) of peace-and-quiet to background noise. No one bothers me there, and Wi-Fi is available if I need it but too inconvenient to be a constant distraction. And, yes, I know I shouldn’t, but I like the fries.

Be patient. At first, writing in increments, in those relatively short blocks of time that you’ve set aside, may seem painfully slow. You might feel like you’re not getting anywhere, especially if you’re working on a book. Just be patient. Over time, you will be surprised at how quickly the pages stack up. The important thing, as many of you no doubt learned from writing a dissertation, is to be consistent.

When I wrote my first book, my schedule was such that I could devote only one hour a day to the project. So I did. I wrote from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. On many days, it seemed like I wasn’t accomplishing much, producing only a couple hundred words, if that. On other days the writing flowed a little better and I might produce 1,000 words or more. But after 10 months of holding myself rigorously to that schedule, I had a 300-page manuscript, which I spent another four or five months revising.

Repurpose. A concept that all professional writers understand is that of repurposing, or reusing, things you’ve already written. That is especially important when you’re writing incrementally. Blog posts can be expanded into columns and columns into articles. Articles can become book chapters, and vice versa. A scholarly piece, revised and condensed, can make an excellent general-interest column for the local newspaper.

The point is to increase your output without unnecessarily duplicating your effort. Writers who publish a lot are constantly looking for such opportunities. In fact, I learned about repurposing from my dad, a professional writer and photographer for four decades. To promote his first book of photographs, back in the early 1990s, he wrote three versions of essentially the same article for three different national magazines.

So contrary to what you may have thought, you really do have time to write—you’ve just been using that time for other things. But if you’re willing to rearrange your work and personal life, make some sacrifices, and be patient, you can become a published and perhaps prolific author, even while teaching five courses a semester.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.